Otis Rush released some of the most harrowing, emotionally intense blues ever recorded during his late-50s tenure at Chicago’s Cobra label. Though he continued to perform and record, sometimes brilliantly, until his 2004 stroke, those early sides remain the cornerstone of his legacy.
Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1934, Rush moved to Chicago in 1948. At first, he considered himself primarily a harmonica player, but he honed his guitar chops, incorporating progressive, jazz-influenced ideas he absorbed from the recordings of T-Bone Walker. By the mid-50s, he was leading his own band (as “Little Otis”), and in 1956, Willie Dixon brought him to the west-side recording studio owned by Cobra proprietor Eli Toscano. There, along with fellow young lions Buddy Guy and Magic Sam, Rush helped develop a high-energy sound that emphasized guitar dexterity and emotional fervor, soon to be known as the “west side” style of Chicago blues—something of a misnomer, since the artists themselves performed all over town, and they didn’t live just on the west side.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby,” Rush’s first recording and Cobra’s debut, made it to number six on the R&B charts in 1956. Rush never charted again, but he’d continue to build on the approach he used for that song: he delivered Willie Dixon’s lyrics in a tremulous wail pitched somewhere between anguish and terror, and his guitar work (though somewhat muted by the production) achieved a similar intensity. Subsequent outings, especially minor-key masterpieces such as “Double Trouble” and “My Love Will Never Die,” delved into realms of emotional devastation that few blues artists before or since have dared explore.
After Cobra folded in 1959, Rush soldiered on (the 1960 Chess single “So Many Roads, So Many Trains” is a highlight), but it wasn’t till the mid-60s that he was “rediscovered” and canonized by a new generation of fans. His output over the next several decades was uneven, but at his best (1976’s Right Place, Wrong Time, 1994’s Ain’t Enough Comin’ In) he summoned enough of his genius to further his reputation, even among newcomers unfamiliar with his early work.
This tribute to Rush features more than 25 musicians and singers, among them several of his Cobra-era contemporaries and younger players who carry a torch for his style. Keeping such a massive revue on track will require such logistical finesse that the show seems likely to maintain a perilous balance between inspiration and catastrophe—but in a way, that’s appropriate. Rush’s music is a front-line dispatch from psychic battlefields where inspiration and catastrophe feel simultaneously imminent. It’s unclear whether the man himself will be able to attend, but friends and admirers are hoping for the best—after a life too often rocked by “double trouble,” he deserves to bask in the love and recognition of as many admirers as Grant Park can hold.
The Blues Festival’s Otis Rush Tribute takes place Sunday, June 12, at 8 PM at the Petrillo Music Shell. Participants include Jimmy Johnson, Abb Locke, Brian Jones, Carl Weathersby, Bob Stroger, Sumito Ariyoshi, Big Ray, Eddy Clearwater, John Kattke, Mike Welch, Rawl Hardman, Harlan Terson, Bob Levis, Billy Flynn, Mike Wheeler, Lurrie Bell, Shun Kikuta, Mike Ledbetter, Eddie Shaw, Sam Burton, Willie Henderson, Diane Blue, Ronnie Earl, Anthony Palmer, Kenny Anderson, Leon Allen, Henri “Hank” Ford, and Willie Wood.